“The Agitators” opens with prominent civil rights activist Frederick Douglass feverishly playing his violin. It cuts to a bright-eyed, feisty and free-spirited Susan B. Anthony in her late twenties, resplendent in a plaid blouse and yellow skirt. She chats at a picnic with an idealistic and intellectual Douglass, in his early thirties for this scene, dapper in a green waistcoat with ornamental buttons. She calls him “one of my favorite people in Rochester”, where she lives and where the local political crowd regularly meets at her father’s farm to discuss the issues of the day.

The play ends in Rochester, with Anthony visiting Douglass’ grave shortly after his death in 1895.

In between, these two larger-than-life historical figures maintain their friendship while fighting for shared beliefs in the right to vote and other civil rights struggles of the 19th century.

“The Agitators” provides important historical insight into how certain American freedoms slowly developed during the lifetimes of these two activists. Mat Smart, a prolific and award-winning playwright, depicts a remarkable friendship between two very famous people. Yet both of these things are done rather superficially and transparently.

Large expanses of exhibits on what Susan and Frederick did between their mutual visits are awkwardly delivered in the form of casual conversation. There’s a running gag on “Are you quoting me?” which is really just a way to share their concise lyrics in a casual way. It doesn’t do the quotes justice or the description of a warm friendship. There’s another running joke about how they claim to have read each other’s books but didn’t actually. These tracks don’t seem convincing given all the moments they detail each other’s writings and accomplishments.

Whatever its flaws as written, the decades-long friendship of two of their era’s best-known abolitionists and suffrage crusaders is loaded with potential, and when the dialogue isn’t contrived, factual or excessive. top it can really connect.

For this production of “The Agitators,” the main agitators are the designers, who help set a cohesive tone for the show even when the choppy structure and stilted dialogue defy such fluidity.

One of the strongest elements of Playhouse on Park’s production of “The Agitators” is Jeffrey Salerno’s sound design. The piece opens with an audio montage of violin playing, labored breathing and a barking dog. Throughout the show, there are complex, layered soundscapes where other designers would settle for quick obvious effects.




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Likewise, Randall Parsons’ scenic design is a clever arrangement of stars and stripes – like parquet, like subtle browns rather than garish red, white and blue. Like the sound design, the set adds a useful amount of abstraction, bringing an element of dreamlike fantasy to the story mix.

Director Kelly O’Donnell, co-founder of New York’s progressive Flux Theater Ensemble, complements the non-realistic design elements by keeping the action human and up close. The actors cry, kiss and dance. When they bicker, it’s always a dance.

As Anthony, Sam Rosentrater is a no-frills feminist who stands up to the more formal and stately Frederick Douglass, played by Gabriel Lawrence. Both actors bring a lot of humor to their roles but not at the expense of dignity or drama. They have to act like they’re in their 30s, then 40s and 50s, all the way to the late 70s, and some of these scenes are much more compelling than others. Sometimes there are exciting backdrops to their conversations, and sometimes the dialogue has to be the most exciting thing that happens. Rosentrater and Lawrence were up for the challenge.

Over the past few seasons, Playhouse on Park has really found its stride with small-cast period dramas that allow for creative mood-setting environments. Script-wise, “The Agitators” may not be on the same level as these other examples, but the theater has really found a niche here: conversational dramas about massive social change and struggles, especially for women and people of color. Next season is “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”.

“The Agitators” is rougher than others in this sensitive subgenre, cutting a little too close to a junior high school history class video at times, but it gets the crowd going very well. You’ll likely leave the theater with a better sense of the key shifts in the suffrage and civil rights movements of the mid-1800s and how they relate to those of our time. You’ll also feel the human toil of those who led the fight and how they survived in part because of the friendships and loyalties they forged.

‘The Agitators’ runs until June 12 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford. Performances are Tuesday at 2 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20-$50, with discounts for students, seniors, military, and Let’s Go Arts! members. playhouseonpark.org.

Christopher Arnott can be reached at [email protected].